The challenge of McLuhan’s work, both in the sense that it is challenging to read and that it lays down a challenge to be taken up, involves the difficulty of thinking about that which shapes our thinking — it is akin to attempting to jump over your own shadow.
Not surprisingly, a good deal of his method, perplexing and infuriating as it could be, seems designed to coax readers over their shadows, to become aware of how their thinking has been formed by the media environment. Biographer W. Terrence Gordon, citing McLuhan’s own description of his teachers at Cambridge, gets at this when he writes, “There could be no more succinct statement of his own aims, as he left Cambridge to begin a teaching career, than ‘the training of perception.’”
Later on, Gordon cites a letter to Mrs. Pound in which McLuhan writes, “The appeal must be to the young … they have been systematically deprived of all the linguistic tools by which they could nourish their own perceptions at first hand at the usual traditional sources.”
Walter Ong, a former student of McLuhan’s and outstanding scholar in his own right, classified teachers as follows:
A good teacher is one who can encourage others to think actively. A superior teacher can make the thinking pleasant for the learners. A superb teacher can make the thinking an overpowering activity, delightful even when it is disturbing and exhausting.
“By this criteria,” Ong went on, “Marshall McLuhan was a superb teacher who could stir people’s minds.” Ong also noted that, “… even with the most brilliant teacher, if the learners are to do any learning, they are the ones who have to do it.”
Putting all of this together yields, in my estimation, the nature of McLuhan’s enduring significance. In one respect he may be likened to the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin’s illustration who knows one big thing — changes in media environments change the way we think and the way we experience life. But he was also a little like the fox who knows many things in that he approached the one big idea from countless angles and drawing promiscuously from the whole of experience.
As some have noted in taking the measure of McLuhan, he drove that one idea home so well that he rendered his work superfluous. But this is not quite right. While others have perhaps done a better job of articulating and systematizing the big idea, they have perhaps also domesticated it. Knowledge has been imparted, but perceptions have not been trained. Ironically, this may be attributed to a lack of sensitivity to the medium, i.e. McLuhan’s method.
McLuhan understood, as Ong put it, that if learners are too learn anything they are the ones who will have to do it. All of the probes, the paradoxes, the gnomic statements, the quirkiness, the esotericisms, the inconsistencies, the absurdities, the juxtapositions, the koanish assertions, the puns — all of it aimed at drawing out the work of learning from the learner in such a way that their perceptions would be trained. Simply clarifying the big idea, extracting and re-presenting the kernel of the thought only captured the data, it did not train perceptions, it did not heighten sensibilities, it did not lead to practical wisdom. In the end it may very well darken and numb perception.
This insistence on the training of perception, fully embodied perception involving the whole human sensorium, may have been McLuhan’s chief contribution. Perceiving the world, which is to say being alive to the world, is not a given and much less so in certain media environments. McLuhan as a teacher seems bent on awakening us to experience; agitating, provoking, inciting us to perceive. That is no small thing when some degree of variously imposed numbness becomes the cultural default.